Archive for February, 2017

Dreamproof (1/2)

Orloj Prague

I’m republishing this short story in two parts to commemorate the death of a good friend two years ago – the event that inspired it. She was a sceptic about the afterlife!

Dorothy[1] stared at the piles of paper on his desk. The magnolia just beginning to blossom outside the window proved that it was spring, but this was not the spring clean she had planned. It wasn’t his fault that the desk was covered in notebooks, newspaper cuttings, envelopes, scribbled sheets of A4, and bits of card in various colours. That was her doing.

She had known since the funeral that she would have to clear out his study at some point, but had put it off all winter. The short dark days had made it seem too difficult to tackle such a painful task.

She’d shipped his clothes to the Oxfam shop. He’d never been attached to them and nor was she, but this was different. His study held the heartbeat of his life’s work. She couldn’t face the bookshelves yet, nor the filing cabinet with all his journals in, so she’d attacked his desk with all the venom of her grief. Every heavy drawer was heaved out of its slot and dumped onto the rust-red leather surface until there was no more room.

The mounds reached almost to her chest. Scribbled scraps had fallen onto the carpet. No longer able to stand she sank into his chair just as the tears began once more to slide their customary path down along her cheeks.

Surely this would have to wait until another day. She was just about to get up and leave when her eyes fell on an envelope, originally at the bottom of a drawer but now at the top of the last hoard she had thrown onto the heap.

It had her name on it.

Hesitantly she pulled it towards her. The envelope felt thick and stiff, as though it held a card for her to read. Memories of anniversaries flooded back, of other cards in better days, in Paris in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, beneath the Orloj in Prague’s Old Town Square, in Amsterdam with Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum.

With misty eyes, she groped into the top left hand drawer – not one she’d emptied yet as she knew that all it contained were such things as staplers, pens, rulers, scissors and sellotape. And the brass letter opener she needed was there somewhere. Her hand finally detected it.

She slit open the envelope.

Sure enough, a card, with van Gogh’s sunflowers on the front.

“My dearest Dorothy,” it read, “I should have put this somewhere more obvious but I thought it was best to make this task as difficult as I could for obvious reasons. I have given a packet for John to keep until you ask him for it. I am requesting you not to do so until I enter your dreams twice, on two separate nights, and tell you what the packet contains. There is one thing inside that I only want you to find after you have seen me twice in a dream and I have told you what the envelope contains. You must tell John what is inside the envelope before you open it in his presence. In that way we will make it as certain as possible that, if you are right, my continuing life after death is confirmed at least for the two of you, the most important people in my life. Of course, if you are wrong, while it will not prove that my mind is still alive, as I sincerely hope it is at the time that you read this, it does not prove the opposite either. Whichever way this goes, please remember that in this life at least I have loved you more than any other person, place or thing.

“With deepest love, Alistair.”

She could hold back the sobs no longer as her mind carried her back to the late winter morning just over a year ago, after the surgeon had confirmed there was nothing more they could do. Alistair had sat where she sat now, as she stood in the doorway watching him, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand. They had just got up and the heating was only just beginning to loosen the grip of a frosty night.

He had explained to her, with a wide grin on his face, his latest plan.

‘Jesus!’ she spluttered in her drink, ‘You’ve got to be bloody joking.’

‘Why? It’d be a great experiment. If I did come back you’d be so comforted.’

‘But what if you didn’t?’

‘Well, you’d be no worse off than if we didn’t work this plan.’

. . . . . . . . .

John was just biting into a wholemeal biscuit when his mobile rang. It was Dorothy. For a moment he was tempted to ignore it but relented. She didn’t ring often after all.

‘’Hi, Dorothy. How goes?’

‘D’you know what I’ve found,’ she burst out loudly at high speed.

‘Tell me,’ he responded wearily.

‘The card,’ she shouted. ‘The one telling me about the packet Alistair left with you.’

He paused. He’d been dreading this moment.

Not only did he feel guilty that he hadn’t given Dorothy more time and support in these difficult days, but he regarded the whole ‘experiment’ Alistair had set up as a complete waste of time. He’d always known of his dead friend’s obsession with the possibility of the afterlife. They’d had many a conversation in which he’d tried to bring him back to his senses. Nothing had worked. And now he resented the way his friend had dragged him into this pointless charade. It was not only embarrassing but would probably leave Dorothy feeling even more hurt and let down than ever. And he would have to deal with all this.

‘I know the one you mean. Do you really feel we need to go through with this? It’ll drag on for ages and slow down any chance you have of grieving properly and moving on.’

‘Of course we have to go through with it,’ she snapped. ‘He wanted it and it’s what I want as well.’

‘But it’ll only lead to disappointment . . . . ,’ he began.

‘You don’t know that. You believe whatever you want. Believe in nothing for all I care. But I believe something else is possible and this may be the only chance I ever get of proving it to myself at least.’ She stopped. ‘Maybe it’ll change your mind as well.’

‘Fat chance,’ he thought but said nothing.

‘What is it that you want me to do?’

. . . . . . . . .

Dorothy sat at the garden table in the late afternoon sun. Its light scattered off the dimpled glass in snaking patterns. She knew John wasn’t happy to continue with this plan but she was grateful that, out of loyalty to Alistair probably, he was on board with it at least for the time being.

The next big problem was her dreams. She never remembered any. Alistair had banged on endlessly about how everyone dreams, and about how important they were as messengers from ‘the subliminal mind.’ How irritating all that psychobabble was while he was still alive and how much she missed it now.

On the table was a book about dreaming. It was one he had recommended to her many times over the years. She’d always refused to go near it. Well, he’d won the battle in the end. She picked it up and began to read, skimming past the early chapters trying to find where this wonderful advice was about capturing the dreams she felt she never had. Ah, got it. She read more carefully. She had to prime her mind before sleep and ask to be given dreams. Then, if she woke and remembered even the faintest fragment of a dream, she must catch it and write it down even in the middle of the night.

It all seemed a bit mad to her. Was this his way of getting her to do now he was dead, what he could never persuade her to consider while he was alive? Perhaps it wasn’t about proving his mind lived on at all. Perhaps he believed that tuning into her dreams would help her with her grief and the rest of her life without him. Should she ring John and tell him to call it off?

She remembered that Alistair was not a trickster. He didn’t play those kinds of mind games. He was obsessed with near-death experiences and bored you almost to death endlessly explaining them. He almost certainly did want to test this theory out. Maybe he wanted her to value her dreams as well but definitely not instead.

She read on.

That night she placed a pad and pencil next to the bed. She decided to leave the light on as well. Her sleep would be more broken, which might help, and she wouldn’t have to grope for the pencil and risk losing the dream.

This became her nightly ritual for weeks. She faithfully recorded what she could remember of her dreams.

At first mere wisps of smoke with no sign of the fire.

She was on a green train going somewhere. She was trying to make a phone call but the screen of her mobile didn’t work. She was in a meeting with a report to make but she had left her draft at home. She is at the window of a house on fire, helping people to escape.

Slowly, over time the dreams became more detailed and more weird.

She was in what seemed to be a church, sitting on the kind of shiny reddish-brown wooden bench that usually constitutes a pew. There were quite a few people around. Across an aisle there was a bench or barrier with some kind of platform in front of it. It didn’t look like those tombstones found in a church but it was about the same height. There were several people in front of it watching some kind of mythical creature pacing up-and-down, perhaps even dancing. It was of medium height and possibly had wings. A girl, with a bow and arrow in her hands, clearly felt the creature was dangerous and she had to kill it before it harmed someone. She loved the creature dearly and really didn’t want to kill it. She went close to the platform and shot it with an arrow. She had to go so close so as to be sure to kill the creature and not hurt someone else. Dorothy burst out sobbing. She was so intensely sad. She felt embarrassed and, looking round, was relieved to see a skinny girl to her left also holding back her tears on the same bench.

After this dream she woke up feeling something really significant had happened. She didn’t know quite how to go about decoding it. There were tinges of the Cupid legend and ideas of love. There was grief there, and death. Also there was religion with all that implied about faith and the afterlife. She wondered if it meant that she was getting closer to a meeting with Alistair in a dream. She didn’t know who the other girl was – her younger self perhaps?

The following week there was a longer dream.

Dorothy is wandering around a vast campus. The experience is like a fusion of starting university and being at a conference. One moment she is stepping between people sitting on the central steps of a massive auditorium, as she strides down towards the stage to give a talk. Next she is opening doors off corridors into what should be laboratories, lecture halls or seminar rooms, to find people asleep in them in the daytime. She feels they must have travelled vast distances to get here and are jet lagged. Then she is striding long pathways in flat blank spaces outside completely alone and talking to herself. She is feeling really strange and tense. She seems to know no one.

It’s coming up to 5 p.m. She decides to ring home and gets her mobile out. It’s useless. It’s all in Greek. There is a pretty scene of some ancient building depicted on the screen. There is no address book and no way to ring numbers. She is desperate to make the phone call. Her battery is going flat – it’s showing 19% and she doesn’t have her portable charger with her. She finds a group of red phone boxes near something like a factory and goes into one with her change in her hand but can’t understand the slots for the coins. They seem to be specialised for factory-made discs to go into. Then the phone in her booth rings. She hesitates, then picks it up.

‘Hallo,’ she whispers.

‘Hi, love, it’s Alistair.’

Her heart leaps. She can hardly speak.

‘You’ve done it. You’ve come into my dream.’

‘Listen, love. I haven’t got much time. I’m not meant to ring you yet. In the packet is a book – the Everyman edition of George Herbert’s . . . . .’

The phone went dead.

(Part 2: Thursday)


[1] This was begun after we attended the funeral of a close friend. She was a complete sceptic so in a way this is written partly from her point of view.


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Given my involvement in the local Death Cafe my interest in this piece from the Bahá’í Teachings website should come as no surprise. Justin Baldoni almost makes death seem positively exciting! Click link to  go to the original post.

Actor and My Last Days creator Justin Baldoni explains why he believes he was born to play a part in helping people transition from this world to the next. What if birth and death are actually the same? Justin asks that important question—maybe the most important question imaginable. He describes the birth of his daughter, passing through a dark tunnel into the light, and realizes he will one day greet her joyously once more, when she passes from this world to the next. He wonders whether the prophets of God—Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah—described death as a beautiful, spiritual transition because they knew where we’re all going. Then, Justin asks one more question: What are you spending your time developing?

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

An unexpected ‘like’ alerted me to the existence of this post which I had completely forgotten. As I am planning to post a short sequence next week on the theme of consciousness – whether it is spirit, mind or brain – this post from 2010 seemed too closely related not to be repeated!

In a recent post I reviewed Iain McGilchrist‘s thought-provoking new book The Master and His Emissary. The night before last I watched a DVD, Food, Inc, about the American food industry (more of that in a moment). The images and information the film conveyed reminded me immediately of the nightmare world McGilchrist feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world:

Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.

(page 430)

He also quotes the work of Berger and colleagues (1974). When a society becomes dominated by technology they predict the development of what they call ‘mechanisticity’ and other distortions of the human spirit. This means:

. . . the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or a production line: ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components’; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.

(page 430)

He summarises Gabriel Marcel as speaking of:

. . . the difficulty in maintaining one’s integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being,’ and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions.


Ultimately, ‘[m]orality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest’ (page 431).

The DVD ‘Food, Inc‘ gives us a vivid insight into just how ‘enlightened’ that self-interest has already turned out to be.

The trailer below gives only a faint flavour of the power of the film:

The advert for the film, also on YouTube, packs a somewhat stronger punch but could not be embedded here. There is, though, no substitute for sitting through a rather harrowing 90 minutes to convey the full horror of the reality to which blinkered left-brain processes reduce us when they are unmoderated by the empathic big picture the right-brain brings to bear.

It is fascinating to see how Schwartz’s book, which I also reviewed recently, shows how a different path has led him to similar conclusions. He writes in his co-authored book, The Mind & the Brain (page 276):

Stapp made the point that there is no stronger influence on human values than man’s belief about his relationship to the power that shapes the universe. . . . When the scientific revolution converted human beings from sparks of divine creation into not particularly special cogs in a giant impersonal machine, it eroded any rational basis for the notion of responsibility for one’s actions. We became a mechanical extension of what preceded us, over which we have no control.

This view is permeating our culture, he feels:

The view that people are mere machines and that the mind is just another (not particularly special) manifestation of a clockwork physical universe [has] infiltrated all our thinking . . .

(page 258)

In his view, it accounts for all ‘our moral decrepitude’ because

. . . materialism as a world view . . . . holds that the physical is all that exists, and that transcendent human mental experiences and emotions . . . are in reality nothing but the expressions of electrical impulses zipping along neurons.


This simplistic world view then refuses to acknowledge that there is a ‘mental force’ (i.e. a ‘physical force generated by mental effort’, which is not itself material – page 295) by means of which ‘through intense effort we can resist our baser appetites’ (page 257).

Such a reductionist world view is many million miles apart from the Bahá’í view that, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá expressed it:

. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.

(Some Answered Questions)

Not only that. Volition, He explains, is a special characteristic not found in matter:

Man possesses certain virtues of which nature is deprived. He exercises volition; nature is without will. For instance, an exigency of the sun is the giving of light. It is controlled — it cannot do otherwise than radiate light — but it is not volitional.

(Promise of Universal Peace)

It seems as though this defective world view, which we can as a shorthand label materialism, which thrives when the left hemisphere cuts free of the right, is a significant part of the answer to a critical question religious faith poses to us:

Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?

(Arabic Hidden Words: number 13)

The question which confronts us all is: ‘What am I going to do about it?’

This blog is part of my attempt to work out an answer.

The Bahá’í view at its core contends that, if we are to have an impact, we all need to find ways of working together rather than alone. We have to recognise our essential unity with everyone else, with all life everywhere,  before these problems can be properly addressed. Obviously, once that sense of oneness begins to be established, the more of us there are using it as an operating principle the greater our impact will be.

It seems to me that the thrust of McGilchrist’s position is that it will take nothing less than the combined energies of our entire being to empower us to succeed in this struggle, the humane wisdom of the right brain moderating the blind utilitarianism of the left, the wing of true religion and the wing of true science working together to lift us off the ground. This level of energy will only be available when we are at one and in harmony within ourselves. The vision required for this level of personal integration is spiritual not material in origin. Not until sufficient numbers of people invest great efforts of ‘mental force’ over long periods of time to lift themselves to this level will the healing of our society become possible.

Even so, such integration of the psyche is possible if the requisite effort is made and people are successfully making comparable efforts every second of every day. The great spiritual traditions as well as the latest developments in neuropsychology, underpinned in Schwartz’s view by modern physics, combine to confirm that this must and can be done.

We don’t have to let the machine mentality take over the world completely. More and more of us can join in building towards the critical mass of effort that will create a tipping point. Hopefully, in ever increasing numbers, we will.

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Grave & Courtyard v2

As I walked towards the counter for my coffee I noticed three or four people talking to the lady who facilitates the Death Cafe. That looked promising. She passed me on her way to the room as I reached the counter and we exchanged greetings.

After a few minutes waiting for my coffee to be created, I began to have my doubts. They seemed to be quite happy standing at the counter chatting like a group if friends in a pub. I must have been mistaken, I thought.

I took my coffee and balanced it carefully back to the meeting room.

My pessimism was unjustified. They must have just been waiting for someone’s brew to finish. All four people joined us at the table after a short passage of time.


Unlike last time there was no lack of participants for the Death Cafe at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford this month. In fact, I think this time was a record compared with all my other experiences: we had ten people round the table, including four complete new comers, for our usual exhilarating exploration of the meaning of life under the shadow of death.

Some of the questions we dealt with this time were hardly existential. If you are not using an undertaker what do you do with the body in-between the post mortem/moment of death and the burial/cremation? Covering it with bags of frozen peas did not seem an ideal solution but none of us could come up with a better one. It was suggested that Soul Midwives could probably advise on better methods.

Another was, can you bury two bodies in one small plot, including your back garden? At least one person felt you could, but it was pointed out that this might reduce the value of the property somewhat in the event of its eventual sale.

I also could not resist sharing how inspiring I had found the recent funeral service I attended which had been organised entirely by the family and friends of the deceased (see link for full account). They had not relied on anyone else for input: there was no priest, no undertaker, no hearse. Instead, the coffin was carried to the graveside in a brightly coloured camper van, a vehicle perfectly suited to the tastes of the occupant.

At other points we criss-crossed over more predictable territory: near death experiences, Psi (I’ll be coming back to those issues in the next week or so), ghosts, exorcism, healing services to quieten the dead, and we debated whether it was possible to be sure whether there was an afterlife or there wasn’t (more of that too soon).

We all noted that Dying Matters Awareness week will run from 8-14 May, and we will be keeping our eyes open for possible events locally.

And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?

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Riot police clash with demonstrators outside parliament in Athens, October 2011, as anger breaks out over new austerity measures Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

Riot police clash with demonstrators outside parliament in Athens, October 2011, as anger breaks out over new austerity measures
Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

I read a fascinating piece in the Guardian earlier this month but it somehow slipped through the net without registering on this blog. I need to make up for that lapse right now. It deals with an issue that has teased my imagination for a long time, with the help of Taleb’s The Black Swan, Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Ehrenfeld’s Flourishing along with Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, all of which largely demolished any residual faith I might have had in economics as a science. This article reviews a book written from within the discipline that adduces even more evidence for this kind of scepticism and helps explain part of the reason why experts are currently so discredited. Below is a short extract: for the full post seeks link.

In the autumn of 2011, as the world’s financial system lurched from crash to crisis, the authors of this book began, as undergraduates, to study economics. While their lectures took place at the University of Manchester the eurozone was in flames. The students’ first term would last longer than the Greek government. Banks across the west were still on life support. And David Cameron was imposing on Britons year on year of swingeing spending cuts.

Yet the bushfires those teenagers saw raging each night on the news got barely a mention in the seminars they sat through, they say: the biggest economic catastrophe of our times “wasn’t mentioned in our lectures and what we were learning didn’t seem to have any relevance to understanding it”, they write in The Econocracy. “We were memorising and regurgitating abstract economic models for multiple-choice exams.”

Part of this book describes what happened next: how the economic crisis turned into a crisis of economics. It deserves a good account, since the activities of these Manchester students rank among the most startling protest movements of the decade.

After a year of being force-fed irrelevancies, say the students, they formed the Post-Crash Economics Society, with a sympathetic lecturer giving them evening classes on the events and perspectives they weren’t being taught. They lobbied teachers for new modules, and when that didn’t work, they mobilised hundreds of undergraduates to express their disappointment in the influential National Student Survey. The economics department ended up with the lowest score of any at the university: the professors had been told by their pupils that they could do better.

The protests spread to other economics faculties – in Glasgow, Istanbul, Kolkata. Working at speed, students around the world published a joint letter to their professors calling for nothing less than a reformation of their discipline.

Economics has been challenged by would-be reformers before, but never on this scale. What made the difference was the crash of 2008. Students could now argue that their lecturers hadn’t called the biggest economic event of their lifetimes – so their commandments weren’t worth the stone they were carved on. They could also point to the way in which the economic model in the real world was broken and ask why the models they were using had barely changed.

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You’d think that I’d be able to answer that question with a great deal of confidence at the age of 73, nearing 74. And at one level I can.

And by that I don’t mean through detailed knowledge of my ancestry. All I know already (or am likely to know in the future, for that matter) is logged on this blog either tagged as poems or autobiography.

Nor am I talking about my fundamental reality as a spiritual being, something else I have explored at length elsewhere on this blog usually tagged as spirituality.

No. What I am getting at is far more mundane.

It’s that I know I have a tendency towards introversion. I like a fair amount of my own company and devote it to reflection, reading and writing whenever I can. It was in my teens I realised that I needed to disguise this pattern if I was to get anywhere in the world. I have persuaded myself I hide it reasonably successfully now. I may have done quite well in what, in her biographical chapter, Jane Stabler (Reading Douglas Dunn – page 5) claims the poet succeeded at – cultivating ‘an extrovert public profile which deflected attention from his private book-buying self.’

I read Susan Cain’s Quiet with a quiet sense of satisfaction that I had nailed all I needed to pin down in terms of my temperament. So much of what she said fitted me so well.

But not entirely.

There was the pool of pain problem, the inescapable fact that deep inside me there has always been a hurt that does not heal. Apart from my People Not Psychiatry work over the encounter group weekend in the mid-70s, which I have blogged about, there are numerous examples of when this pain gets triggered, of the kind the 2006 diary entry illustrates (see my italics in particular):

I’ve just seen the latest Pride and Prejudice directed by Joe Wright with Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn and Matthew MacFadyen. It never fails to move me as a story in a passable rendering, which this was (though not as good as Simon Langton’s with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle).

I suspect that it is not the tough-minded observation of moeurs nor the positive resolutions that does the trick each time. It’s that Jane Austen has plumbed the very depths of unfulfilment, of unrequitable passion, of thwarted intensity. She knew what yearning was. Though she uses tales of manners satirically dressed with wicked accuracy, it is the undertow of sadness and longing that gives them power to move me so profoundly. Yes, I love her needle-sharp deflation of pomposity and hypocrisy. It makes me roar with pleasure. I admire her moral sense that probes the cracks even in the endearing Mr Bennet. But it is the pain as Elizabeth believes she is watching the man she has come to love and respect walk out of her life forever that touches my soul. Always for me it is the longing that is most real. There is some longing in me that has never been assuaged. Marriage, fatherhood, literature, religion, work and nature never do more than palliate the pain for a brief moment. There is a beauty always out of reach that my heart keens after. Most people seem not to feel it. They find effective anodynes it seems or maybe never feel this pain at all, plain and simple.

I am still inventing ambitions – to think and write about spirituality and psychology for instance when I retire – to convince me that life still has some hope. But all I really see is a future of exits – valued beings and things leaving me.


When I was blogging about transliminality recently someone stopped by to comment. She wrote:

I just stumbled upon your post in looking for images on transliminality, and I think your diagram is right on. I just finished a PhD in Religion, Psychology, & Culture at Vanderbilt University and wrote my dissertation on Transliminality & Transcendence: An Exploration of the Connections among Creativity, Mystical Experience, and Psychopathology — I felt very fortunate to have found institutional support for this topic.

She offered to send me a copy. I leapt at the chance.

And now I come to what has triggered this recent burst of introspection.

As I read with keen interest through the first sections of her thesis I came across the following:

What does it mean to be an HSP, a highly sensitive person? Such persons are part of the 15-20% of (not only humans but) every animal population studied so far that is characterized by greater sensory awareness, responsiveness, and caution than the other 80-85% (Aron 1997, p. 12). Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this variation develops in all known species because its traits are advantageous in certain circumstances—like hiding from predators, or refraining from starting wars—while the majority’s less-cautious and less-reactive tendencies are better at things like adjusting to new conditions and bringing home the bacon.

In people, sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) entails four qualities that can be summarized with the acronym BEDS: Behavioral inhibition, Emotional reactivity, Depth of processing, and Sensitivity to subtle stimuli (Aron et al. 2012, p. 7-11).65 Highly sensitive persons tend to hold back and inhibit their actions until they have “paused to check” out the situation at hand; their emotions are stronger or more extreme versions (both “positive” and “negative”) of what others tend to experience; they tend to, and need to, process (think about, introspect, assimilate) their experiences, feelings, relationships, thoughts, and circumstances more thoroughly than do others; they can easily become overaroused and anxious from sensory and situational stimulation that the majority of people would find comfortable; and they pick up on subtle sensory and emotional stimuli that most people do not notice. Additionally, in Aron’s initial three- to four-hour interviews with HSPs, “persons across all categories volunteered early that their particular form of spirituality (e.g., ‘seeing God in everything,’ long meditation retreats, a religious vocation) was central to their lives” (Aron et al. 2012, p. 11).

In less academic terms and with a different acronym Sezin Koehler in an article on the Huffington Post website summarises it neatly:

‘In Sensitive: The Untold Story Dr. Aron breaks down the four major traits of a highly sensitive individual into the acronym DOES: depth of processing, overstimulation, empathy and emotional responsiveness, and sensitivity to subtleties. . . . . Because of this above-average depth of processing, the highly sensitive person is easily overstimulated — aka overwhelmed — by events going on around them, and especially chaotic, loud, or crowded situations. The highly sensitive require a great deal of downtime in order to decompress after overstimulation. . . . . . . The highly sensitive show more brain activity in the insula — also known as the brain’s seat of consciousness, which helps integrate an individual’s inner and outer experiences into usable data for survival. The highly sensitive are easier to cry than others because they are emotionally tending to everything around them in a deeper way, which is not a bad thing. Dr Aron notes, “Emotions generally lead to better thinking, because we only think thoroughly about something we care about.” . . . . . In an interview in the film highly sensitive person Alanis Morrissette says, “I spent most of my life thinking that how I was was a problem for people.” I certainly relate to that sentiment. And Dr. Aron, herself a highly sensitive person, reveals, “I think I went into clinical psychology because I didn’t know what was the matter with me.”’

hspWhat was both amusing and irritating when I read about Aron was that I immediately recollected that I had started her 1997 book on iBooks two years or more ago but had given up halfway through. My highlights and notes indicated that I had got the point that what she was saying might apply to me but had failed to register that it might matter.

So, I’ve gone back to her book and finished it. I think what put me off before was partly her tone rather than the content of what she said. There was a touch too much American hyperbole for my understating English palate.

There is clearly enough of an overlap between my perception of myself and the other aspects of this trait to make me suspect that sensitivity might be the missing piece in my jigsaw. Introverts can also display this trait it seems, so it doesn’t negate that aspect of my personality.

What this realisation might do, after I have reflected on it for a bit longer (I can’t help myself – I must be an HSP!), is convince me that I do not need to uncover some forgotten loss, above and beyond those I have already explored, to explain why I am prone to bursting into tears and feeling so deeply sad at times. It’s just how I am. I’m more intense than I thought was reasonable, and this is apparently not unusual for HSPs, who tend to see themselves as inadequate when they needn’t do.

It also possibly explains two other disquieting tendencies I have, apart from my habit of trying to read their state of mind from the faces, postures and gestures of everyone that comes within eye-shot on the street, in cafes and just about everywhere else as well.


First, I have always felt pathetic about my performance anxiety, which is also a correlate of the trait, it seems. I can remember once I was playing really well and comfortably winning a game of squash. Then I noticed that someone was watching the game from the glass window overhead and staying there, not just moving on as most people did. My game crashed and I went to a humiliating defeat.

Secondly, Aron’s research indicates that ‘hunger has an especially strong effect on HSPs.’ Maybe that’s why I have always found the Bahá’í Fast so difficult.

This was obvious right from the start.

I had been dreading the first day of my first Bahá’í Fast – no food, no drink between sunrise and sunset in March. For someone who had never missed lunch in his life, this was a daunting prospect.

I had a long two-and-a-half hour commute at that time. So, I got up at just before my usual time and prepared a bowl of porridge for myself as the most sustaining breakfast I could think of. I sat down with the porridge and a cup of tea. I had ten minutes to finish my breakfast. That was no problem as I have always been a fast eater (no paradoxical pun intended).

As I sat down I felt an agonising pain in my gut and passed out. I later speculated whether it must’ve been some form of colic, probably brought on by my extreme anxiety at the prospect of the impending fast.

When I came round it was too late to eat. The sun had risen. I paused and wondered what I should do. I made the wrong decision. I left my tea and porridge untouched, got ready for work and headed for the tube.

To cut a long story short I spent the day with a slowly rising temperature and an increasing headache, until I ended up waiting on Guilford Station to head home to Hendon. I had a sandwich and a can of Coke in my bag. The train came, I boarded and found a seat.

Still not time to break the fast!

The other passengers must have found it weird to see someone peering at their watch every few seconds with a sandwich on their lap and a drink in their hand. At last the hour struck. I wrenched at the ring on the top of the can. It didn’t budge. With my hands shaking by this stage I wrenched harder. The top came off and cut me as it did so and the blood poured out.

The final irony!

I had to fidget with a handkerchief to staunch the blood I could ill afford to spill before I was able drink my Coke.

The following two days I phased myself slowly into the fast with water and salad in the middle of the day before I attempted a full day’s fasting again.

Even now my wife comments if we’re out and I start to get irritable, ‘Let’s find a cafe and sit down. You’re hungry, I can tell.’

Now I think I know why that is too.

Time will tell whether this explanation for my well of tears, my performance anxiety, my reaction to hunger pangs, my dithering and my people-watching holds good. I hope it does.

Hold on though. I may have to contact Elaine Aron to check something out.

She doesn’t mention anything in her sensitivity profile about a tendency to start a book, abandon it halfway through to start another and so on ad nauseam. At present I’m halfway through at least thirteen books that I can remember, never mind the ones I’ve forgotten I started. I think she may have missed something here. I’m definitely not a Completer-Finisher and perhaps this is why. I’m too sensitive.

Anyway, what were you saying about that post I said I’d write about procrastination?

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As someone drawn to John Donne’s concept of truth as standing on the top of a ‘huge hill/ Cragged and steep,’ with its implication that all seekers are struggling up different sides of the hill on different paths but all heading in the same direction, it’s no mystery why this article on the Bahá’í Teachings website should appeal to me so strongly. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link

How many paths are there to God? There are as many paths to God as there are souls on the Earth.

– Rumi

Most people would probably agree that we all forge our own paths to God, as Rumi suggested. Also, most would likely agree that many different religious paths have at least some validity.

But not everyone. Some people definitely disagree, saying that their religion or their particular path is the one and only way to achieve salvation or spirituality or any true enlightenment; and that all other paths to God are false.

Which one of those approaches do you believe in?

If you favor Rumi’s approach, you’re what’s now called a religious pluralist. You may not have ever heard the term or thought about yourself this way, but take a look at these definitions of pluralism to see if they resonate with what you already think and believe:

pluˊralˑism: n.  various ethnic, religious, etc. groups existing together in a nation or society

reˑliˊgious pluˊralˑism: n.  an approach to faith usually characterized by humility regarding the level of truth and effectiveness of one’s own religion, as well as the goals of respectful dialogue and mutual understanding with other traditions

Lately, philosophers and theologians increasingly group people of faith into three distinct categories of belief: pluralist; exclusivist; and inclusivist.

The British author, Anglican rector and theologian Alan Race first came up with this three-stage concept in 1983. A well-known advocate of interfaith understanding and activities, he wrote:

Religious studies is healing us of our stereotyped views about other religions; the ethical principle of respect in relationships with our neighbours is demanding that we learn from other religions; dialogue opens the door to further ‘critical communion’ with other religions …

So, before we explore this new idea, let’s define what the two other approaches to faith actually mean:

  • exclusivist: n.  a religious person who believes that only one set of beliefs or practices can ultimately be true or correct, and all others are in error
  • inclusivist: n.  a religious person who believes that one set of beliefs is absolutely true, but that others are at least partially true

To sum up:

  • If you believe your religion is the absolute truth and all others are false, you’re an exclusivist.
  • If you believe your religion is the truest, but others also have some truth, you’re an inclusivist.
  • If you believe your religion is true but not the exclusive source of truth, and that multiple religious beliefs can and should co-exist in the world, you’re a pluralist.

Which one are you?

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

For Donne’s poem see link lines 76-82

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